Change & Choice: Making Good Relationship Decisions

As you move toward the center of health (if this is an undefined term for you, see article on “The Four Corners of the Relationship Grid”), your tolerance will decrease toward unhealthy people. You will have a heightened awareness of those that have not done his/her work, those that exist at the outer edges of emotional wellness. Although you might grow in your compassion for the pain and hurt they hold inside or mask with acting-out behaviors, you will choose to hang with them less and less. You will naturally drift toward folks that are more moderated, those that are self-respecting and respecting of you. In other words, when given a choice, you will opt for calm over drama, easy over hard, direct over indirect.


That being said, when starting a new relationship, how does one know if this will be a person to bring into your inner circle or is this one best left intentionally limited or worse yet, is this one that suggests an about face and a run to the hills?  


  1. Collect the Data. Like a good detective, you are on an unfolding path of discovery as to the true character of another person. Whether embarking on a friendship or a romantic partnership, the only thing that reveals the underbelly of a person’s true make-up is consistency over time. In other words, it is the behaviors and actions that a person reveals over time that will show what he/she is really made of. Given enough time and varied real-life experiences, crafted masks and impressions will be shed and the game of “come-out, come-out whoever you are” begins. In my experience, usually this revelation of truth takes about 18 months. So, no permanent decisions best be made in this initial phase of relating. And sadly, it cannot be rushed. Just trust that life will show you what you need to know and with time and patience, the truth will surface.


  2. Assess the Landscape. Now you see the person for who he/she is … an imperfect human being, with both good and not-so-good parts. You like this part, but not that part so much. As a result of this clarity, the question becomes, “now what?” How inhibiting are this person’s edges? Are they destructive and damaging or just annoying? Are they preventing you from having the relationship you would like to have with him/her? But most importantly, is this person available and responsive to how his/her character flaws impact you and the relationship and is he/she willing to own and work on his/her stuff? If you got that, you got gold. I would think twice before throwing it away.


  3. Accept or Let Go. So, now we come to the decision-tree. If this person is responsive, humble enough to own his/her issues, willing to work his/her edge toward the Circle of Health, then green light. Furthermore, if what you get from the relationship outweighs what you are not getting, then all systems are on go. You move into a space of grieving and accepting. In other words, you grieve what you are not getting (and may never get) and accept this person for who he/she is with all his/her limitations. On the other hand, if your attempts at real and honest relating are met with defensiveness, blame, control, the need to be right and/or retaliation, then this might be life’s gift to you in the shape of a warning. It is time to let this fish back into the water. Or at the very least, to curb one’s contact with a healthy boundary.

As I review these steps, I am reminded of the wise old adage of the Serenity Prayer. To change what I can, accept what I can’t and learn to distinguish which to do when.


But what about those people in our lives that we have no choice around? You know the type – Aunt Suzie, your boss, your neighbor or your customer? Next month, we will discuss survival skills to navigate the waters of these limited and at times, toxic relationships.


Cookies for Dinner

As many of you know, I am indebted to Terry Real and his work in the creation of the Relational Life theory and practice (RLT). With the risk of being oh-so-clichés, it has changed my practice and my life. The precision and speed by which his model gets at the core of human interaction is rather astounding. And as a clinician, I am committed to as much in-depth study and mastery of RLT as my time and pocketbook can muster.


That being said, I do have one criticism. If applied, the strength of RLT is to get couples to stop hurting each other. This is a necessary first step to getting a relationship out of the emergency room and off of life-support. But, in my opinion, that is only half of the equation. Human beings have to be taught how to be intimate with one another. Creating and sustaining true, authentic verbal and emotional connection is a learned skill. And I see this deficit every day in my office. Partners begin to own his/her contribution to the disastrous co-created relationship. He/she chips away at his/her side to begin to make healthier, more relational choices. And then they look at each other and at me, and say with lost eyes, now what? Is this it? Are we done? And I slowly and gently break the bad news that we now are facing the crucial task of learning how to build a genuine, messy, loving and hating and cherishing relationship with the human being sitting on the other side of the couch. And most of the time, I get stares as if I am talking a foreign language.


And I am beginning to think I really am. With the predominance of social media as our primary form of human contact, we are fostering an epidemic of relationally-challenged people. We are becoming so satiated with processed cookies at four o’clock that we lead ourselves to believe that we can skip preparing, inviting and dining over real dinner with real food. The over-abundance of manufactured contact at our fingertips 24/7 allows us to ignore both our hunger for live human touch and the stark realization that most of us are pretty bad at it.


Just as I have so appreciated my crossing paths with RLT, I was given an additional professional gift many moons ago from another one of my psychological fathers. He pointed me toward the world of post-graduate study in classical psychoanalysis. Also, a game-changer. I have never interfaced with such brilliant academicians of the human psyche. Poets of pontification. I gleaned many, many ideas from these scholars but for our purposes, I will share two of the most important.  First, Freud was right. The unconscious is alive and well. In other words, there are parts of who we are that exist in our blind spot. The evolution of a healthy human being towards his/her potential requires that he/she seek clarity and light around these darkened rooms within. I just need to lay on the couch and say what comes to mind, what I am thinking and feeling, out loud in the moment. Second, that I have to lay on that couch multiple times per week so that I run out of things to say. Yup, you read that correctly. I can easily fill the space of 50 minutes with a report of all my life happenings since last week. And by the time I am done catching up my analyst, the time buzzer has expired. See you next week when we will do the same thing over again. But if I have to come back tomorrow or the next day, well, shit … what the hell do I talk about now? Not much has occurred since the last time I saw you. So, we sit in silence. And often we sit a long time. Space has been created and opened and thus far, nothing is rushing in to fill it. I can’t talk about the analyst’s personal life in that this is not a social setting. And God forbid, I pick up my phone. So, I am forced to just sit with myself – all the good, the bad and the ugly. And eventually, because there is this opening of time and space, all the rich, concealed goodies way deep inside of me begin to surface. We drop, or fall, into a level of intimacy where the depth of my unconscious has the luxury to make an appearance. And then we get real meat, all the deep-seated substance which become the raw materials for the progression of a human toward essence and vitality.   


So, why am I telling you all this? Yes, you guessed it – there is a parallel process in real life, outside of the analyst’s consulting room. If I do not fight for intimacy, if I do not intentionally and consciously create the time and the space for buried thoughts and feelings to crop up, then I am settling for a life of superficiality and shallow connections. I will become a victim to life’s overabundance of distractions which crowd my capacity to dig deeper into the gold lying extensively in you and in me. Couples tell me often that they just don’t have the time to do what I am suggesting to build and sustain real intimacy. Make the time! Relationships are an investment and they are not efficient. Without carving out time to reveal one’s inner thoughts and feelings to one another, then we are resigning ourselves to a life of  boring logistics and parallel living. Thus, it’s a wonder that Facebook becomes the go-to for empty calories.


Cookies for dinner? I will pass, thank you. I would rather tolerate my temporary hunger in hopes that I will feast on a gourmet meal. Care to join me? We certainly got a fight on our hands. But I guarantee you, it will certainly be worth the effort.